Kevin Rudd at Idea Exchange: I can never rule out Xi Jinping making a significant gesture to India in his overwhelming interest of changing the game in his favour – The Indian Express

In his book, The Avoidable War, former Australian PM Kevin Rudd analyses the layers of the US-China relationship, the need for strategic competition, what it means for Quad and the way Australia looks at India. He also explains why the new Australian Labour government is moving closer to India and shares the same international policy prism. The session was moderated by Deputy Chief of National Bureau Shubhajit Roy.
Shubhajit Roy: Why write this book now? You also mention that there’s a potential for a conflict between the US and China. That it is a question of not ‘if’ but ‘when.’ Why do you say so despite all the guardrails or systems in place?
The book sets out to describe how the US-China relationship got to its current stage by quickly retracing its history. Second, it seeks to outline the worldview of Xi Jinping. Third, it seeks to describe the managed strategic competition given the current nature of the relationship.
Right now, we have unmanaged strategic competition with no guardrails, no rules of the road. In fact, it’s a series of a strategic push and shove in order to find an equilibrium. In the process, there are incidents which give rise to escalation, crisis, conflict and war. Any one of those incidents could emerge any day of the week, in the Taiwan Straits, the South China Sea, East China Sea, and even for that matter, over strategic miscalculation in the Korean Peninsula, let alone what happens in cyberspace or the Sino-Indian border. So that’s unmanaged strategic competition.
Managed strategic competition is different. I describe that as finding the five strategic red lines in the areas I’ve just referred to. And it’s for each side to articulate to the other what its irreducible positions would be. The second element of managed strategic competition, beyond the identification of mutually identified strategic red lines, is what I call non-lethal strategic competition in other domains — security, foreign and economic policies, including trade, investment technology, capital markets, currency, talent markets, as well as the great contest for ideas and ideology, the ideational system. The last underpins the international rules-based system. And as I say in the book, may the best system win. As a supporter of the Freedom Project myself, I hope that those advocating a liberal international order prevail but China will have a different view.
Xi Jinping sees himself as a grand strategist, looking at the aggregation of China’s external circumstances and pressure points. To him, only the US can prevent China’s historical rise to become a dominant power in the region
The third domain is where there’s still sufficient political and diplomatic space for strategic cooperation and collaboration. There are certain global public goods like climate change, global financial stability, the next pandemic or other challenges to global public health where it is in the national interests of both these powers to bilaterally and globally collaborate to deal with a common danger. So, in a nutshell, managing strategic competition can stabilise the US-China relationship.
As far as unmanaged strategic competition is concerned, a conflict is bound to happen. The question is not about if but when. There are many reasons. One, China is now more powerful, militarily, economically, technologically and in foreign policy terms. The second is that Xi Jinping’s leadership seeks to adjust the strategic status quo in a manner that’s more compatible with Chinese interest. Third, since 2017, the US has chosen to respond. Particularly since the election of the Biden administration, there has been a range of measures, both in the security sphere, alliance consolidation, the construction of new institutions like the Quad and AUKUS, as well as in a series of impending technological restrictions. So if you go to the operational terrain of the relationship, where you have literally hundreds of military aircraft and vessels and in some cases, troops deployed in an ever-confrontational environment, the law of probability points to a collision occurring. Hence, the concept of managed strategic competition seeks to reduce a statistical risk.
Shubhajit Roy: You say that one can never rule out the possibility of Chinese President Xi Jinping bringing about a rapprochement with India despite the border standoff. Why do you say so?
Xi Jinping sees himself as a grand strategist, looking at the aggregation of China’s external circumstances and pressure points. To him, only the US can prevent China’s historical rise to become a dominant power in the region. When he looks at the rest of what the Chinese would describe as a comprehensive national power, or what the Soviets in an earlier stage might have called the correlation of forces around the world, his strategic lens includes Japan, the Russian Federation, the European Union and India. To a lesser extent, he’ll look at countries like the Republic of Korea, Australia and the rest of Southeast Asia.
Over the last few years, Xi has sought to reduce strategic tensions, certainly with Russia, and their relationship is turning into a de facto security arrangement. In recent years, China has tried to reduce structural tension with Tokyo. The Chinese have done the same thing with India. For example, there was the Wuhan meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping. With Europeans, it is an ongoing project, which has had recent setbacks in terms of the European reaction to China’s de facto support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But Chinese diplomacy is at work in Europe as well to turn that around. So, we should not rule out the possibility of a Xi-driven initiative to turn the Indian strategic worldview into a position which is more accommodative. China has been successful with Russia, not so much with Japan and is trying in Europe. Its diplomacy with India depends on the current state of the border and the bilateral economic relationship. I looked carefully at what External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said during his recent meetings with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi when the latter travelled to Delhi. He said there could be no normalisation of or improvement in the India-China relationship in the absence of the border question. But I would not rule out the possibility that at some stage, looking at global geopolitics, Xi makes a significant gesture towards India in his overwhelming interest. But as the decade of living dangerously unfolds between China and the US, with the former being deeply surprised by the strategic collaboration between the US, Japan, India and Australia through Quad, we should not rule out the possibility of Xi “changing the game.” This isn’t probable but possible.
AUKUS is different because the bilaterals between Canberra and London and Canberra and Washington have been long established. This is an arrangement around a N-powered boats project. The biggest dynamic, of course, will be with the Quad
Shubhajit Roy: The Galwan incident cemented Quad but can the four countries (US, India, Japan, Australia) continue with this alliance effectively, considering each has a very strong relationship with China?
All countries will place a priority on their economic relationships with the US and China. But they will place an even higher priority on their national security. Therefore, when you look at the reaction from Japan, and the attempted rapprochement between Tokyo and Beijing, or the turnaround under both Yoshihide Suga and Fumio Kishida, it was because of China’s security policy behaviour towards Japan in the East China Sea. The Chinese diplomacy and the Chinese military were speaking in different voices. Whatever Chinese diplomats may say in Delhi , the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) behaviour along the Indo-China border has been consistent, assertive and, from Delhi’s perspective, aggressive. This creates the dynamics for a much deeper geostrategic response.
Shubhajit Roy: It was under your prime ministership that Australia played ball with the Quad grouping. In your book, you talk about how your predecessor John Howard and our then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had not shown interest. This is contrary to the widely held perception…
The position to reject Quad by Manmohan Singh, Yasuo Fukuda in Japan, my predecessor John Howard and US President George Bush was taken months before my election as Prime Minister in late 2017. Those are empirical facts. We know from WikiLeaks that the Bush administration had moved in the same direction well before my election. It was mutually convenient for countries, including the domestic political debate in Australia, to blame the decisions of my government.
Nirupama Subramanian: How can Quad manage the relationship between US and China in view of predicted conflict scenarios?
Managing strategic competition is primarily intended as a joint strategic narrative between China and the US. Because that is where the day-to-day calculus of risk, incident, crisis, conflict and war will come from. But some of the triggering mechanisms occur with American allies and strategic partners — Japan, Australia and India. Therefore, operationalisation of any managed strategic competition will mean that all of us will need to have inputs on a rolling basis on the nature of the articulation of strategic red lines. We need to identify irreducible points of national interest for each of us, including the daily risk of cyber attacks against our central, political and economic infrastructure. Quad partners have a role in the balance of power. Without effective counter-balance, China would be much less predisposed towards moving towards managed strategic competition.
Nirupama Subramanian: You mentioned that the Chinese military is separate from the political leadership. Many in the Indian establishment thought so too but not now anymore.
What I meant was a separation between the military and the foreign policy establishment, not between the military and the political establishment. The military in China is organised around the Central Military Commission, whose chairman is Xi. And the decisions by the Central Military Commission, in my long analytical experience, are all taken with the support of its central leadership, not just its military leadership. The military works entirely with the sanction and support of Xi. The foreign ministry has never been a powerful institution and its principal function is to create the most positive image possible for China in the world, irrespective of the other substantive arms of the party, the military or the economic bureaucracy.
Shubhajit Roy: Australia has just seen the Labour Party return to power. How does it look at the relationship with China as well as with India?
I know the new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong very well. I had appointed both of them to my Cabinet. I had appointed Richard Marles, now the Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister on the Pacific. The best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. The previous Australian Labour government, in its six years in office, undertook a lot of effort in strengthening the relationship with Delhi and forging a strategic partnership. My government launched the free trade negotiations between Australia and India, removed the historical reservations about the sale of nuclear supplies to India, notwithstanding India’s non-adherence to the non-proliferation treaty. The Australian Defence White Paper, 2009, for the first time identified China as a strategic challenge in our region because of its changing behaviour back then in the South China Sea. I think the early interaction between Prime Minister Albanese and Prime Minister Modi at the Quad summit in Tokyo was good. They are seeing reality much through the same international policy prism and I do not see any basis for that changing. In fact, I see the basis for the relationship only improving.
As for the Australia-China relationship, the tension has been evident since the change in government as well. But Albanese’s upfront statement, that normalisation of a relationship means China has to act on punitive trade sanctions against Australia, is robust.
Shubhajit Roy: There’s bipartisan support for better relations with India. Are there any nuances to watch out for?
The Australian Conservative government was often distracted by its own domestic political need to sound hairy-chested on China every day of the week by using the megaphone. However, as India has shown, there is a big difference between a declaratory policy — what politicians say — as opposed to an operational strategy, which is what a country does in response to a security challenge. The new Labour government is less likely to use the megaphone. You conduct normal diplomacy with China on very difficult, complex and conflicting positions. But you use the public microphone only when absolutely necessary. For example, Jaishankar does not provide a rolling commentary on Chinese politics. But when Wang Yi comes to Delhi and seeks some sort of strategic cooperation with India over the question of Russia and Ukraine, he takes a public position that normalisation can never occur while the border remains as it is. It is this selective use of the public positioning of the relationship, which is needed.
On the operational nature of the relationship between Australia and China, you will see very little difference.
Esha Roy: Will the new, pro-environment government change policy? Do you see environment and climate change become electoral planks?
The Australian Conservative government changed its formal position towards carbon neutrality by 2050 because of Glasgow. Even powerful media personalities like Rupert Murdoch has committed to carbon neutrality by 2050. The truth is climate change has become a less binary political matter in Australia because two conservative forces — the Morrison government and Rupert Murdoch — changed their position.
Nirupama Subramanian: How does AUKUS fit into the relationship with China?
First, the AUKUS agreement has bipartisan political support in Australia. Second, China’s objection to AUKUS and its argument that Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines was an act of nuclear proliferation is odd, given the rapid expansion of its own nuclear arsenal. Third, the Australian Labour Government will now be dealing with the operationalisation of AUKUS in rolling out a complex submarine acquisition deal. And to do so in a manner which also doesn’t allow any gaps in our capabilities.
Given the absence of a civil nuclear industry within Australia, which we have chosen not to develop, the question is how we can effectively service these boats. Anyway, the acquisition of these nuclear powered boats will proceed.
As for France, the Labour Party fundamentally objected to the way in which the previous Conservative government handled the unilateral cancellation of the previous submarine contract.
The penalty clause was something close to $5 billion of what we would regard as wasted public funds. This has generated a big debate in Australian domestic politics but we have also been keen to preserve and rebuild our relationship with France. That’s why Albanese agreed to a bilateral visit to France at the invitation of President Emmanuel Macron.
Shubhajit Roy: Is AUKUS a Quad-killer?
I think we’re up to variable geometries, to use the phrase of International Relations scholars. In the overall architecture of the Indo-Pacific region, the anchoring elements are the bilateral security treaties and arrangements which the States have with their treaty partners and strategic allies, including India. The second are the plurilateral arrangements, of which the Quad is pre-eminent. A third is a lateral arrangement as with the British. But in terms of AUKUS, Quad is an unfolding narrative.
AUKUS is different because we’ve been treaty partners with the British since the beginning of the European settlements in Australia. The bilaterals between London and Canberra and between Canberra and Washington have been long established. This is simply a particular arrangement around a nuclear-powered boats project. The biggest dynamic, of course, will be with the Quad and where the Republic of Korea goes as well.
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